Theological Method Posts
March 11, 2013 by Jason Hood
Gilbert Meilaender, being prophetic at First Things. The first lesson: stop obsessing over uniqueness more than unity.
If we Lutherans ourselves were clearer that to be Lutheran is to claim the catholic tradition as ours, we would avoid some of the mistakes that have gone a long way toward hollowing out Lutheranism in this country. In particular, we could get rid of the annoying tic that leads so many Lutherans to try—constantly—to articulate something distinctively Lutheran (a sure sign we are worried that our continued existence cannot be justified and, irony of ironies, must seek to accomplish that justification ourselves).
What is distinctively Lutheran is to think of ourselves first as catholic—as catholics who found at a certain point in history that they needed to reform the Church and, in the process, became independent churches themselves….
Secondly, and building on the first point:
“Taken by itself, as the whole of Christianity, the Lutheran corrective produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.”It is, unfortunately, not hard to illustrate what Kierkegaard had in mind. If I am an inattentive, thoughtless, or even abusive husband and father—and my neighbor is just the opposite, an exemplary husband and father—what Lutheranism too often has to say to us is exactly the same: that before God we are sinners in need of justifying grace. And if I want help to become more like my exemplary neighbor, the message is likely to be precisely the same: that I am a sinner in need of grace.
All of which is, of course, true. But it is not the only theological truth, nor the one that always best suits our condition. A theology that has learned to speak in such a monotone about grace—always as pardon but not also as power—gives no guidance or direction to the serious Christian. The Christian life, engaged only in constant return to that pardoning word, goes nowhere. A theology that has learned to speak in such a monotone about grace—always as pardon but not also as power—gives no guidance or direction to the serious Christian. The Christian life, engaged only in constant return to that pardoning word, goes nowhere. Even as profound a theologian as Helmut Thielicke, whose Theological Ethics is to my mind the richest example of modern Lutheran ethics, could think of ethics only as a prolegomenon to preaching—only, that is, as the means of exposing the need we all share for the proclamation of the gospel’s pardon.
The corrective that was once needed for a church that had come to think of penance simply as a balancing of accounts has been made into a norm, producing exactly the opposite of what was intended. . . . When “paradox” becomes our first and last description of the Christian life, it has become a substitute for serious thought—and, worse still, for discipleship.
Near the conclusion, a recapitulation and summation:
The distinction between law and gospel, so powerful for the care of souls, gets turned into the organizing principle of an entire theology—a distinctive theology, to be sure, but one that, as Kierkegaard saw, “produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.”
October 30, 2012 by Jason Hood
While B. B. Warfield was relatively open to science and evolution, he and others at Old Princeton were deeply suspicious of historical reconstructions of texts, which were endlessly dissected based on tenuous reconstructions on the basis of presuppositions about religious history en vogue in 19th century Germany. The same world that produced multiple editions of Q (keep in mind no one has ever seen one edition, let alone two or more) produced endless opportunities for scholarly creativity.
During the same era, Charles Briggs was an opponent of conservative scholarship and principles, especially inerrancy and Warfield. Defrocked by the Presbyterians in 1893, he cuts the figure of a martyr for the sake of historical critical methodology. Of course, we have to take “martyr” with a grain of salt; Briggs was given honorary doctorates by Oxford, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, and the Episcopalians welcomed him with open arms.
But regardless of acclaim–and notwithstanding the fact that Briggs was in some instances asking important questions that conservatives needed to address–there are grave costs to bear for one’s commitment to scholarship with shoddy presuppositions. One might even call them burial expenses.
Earlier this month while researching the Enthronement/Royal Psalms, I happened across the following sentence in an essay by Leo Perdue.
Efforts to reconstruct possible historical situations reflected in ‘Enthronement Hymns’ have generally met with little acceptance.
A great deal of literature could have been cited, but the footnote for that sentence consists only of Briggs’s Psalms (International Critical Commentary, 1906).
We can grant the Qoheleth-esque point that all our work fades away. Many of Warfield’s points haven’t stood the test of time. But here we have not a severed finger or discarded organ, but the corpse of an entire commentary: Briggs’s “state-of-the-art-in-1900″ scholarship has entered its reward, a cave as wide as history, with the word “dustbin” carved over the entrance.0 Comments
August 8, 2012 by Jason Hood
Friend of SAET Jonathan Pennington has a new textbook coming out on the gospels: Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, coming in October 2012 from Baker Academic. I recently asked him a few questions about this work and his approach to the gospels. (For more on the book, including killer video introductions, see the book’s website.)
(1) You’ve been teaching gospels for how long now? What are some of the key elements you want students to take into the pastorate?
I’ve been teaching from the Gospels at several levels for about ten years now – everything from church seminars to Greek Exegesis of Matthew, from Sunday preaching to NT Survey courses.
I want my students and all readers of this book to grow in their love for the theological and literary depth and beauty of the Gospels – and of course, for the Subject of their narrative. I want students to learn how to read narrative texts well and how to apply the narrative portions of Holy Scripture theologically and personally. Most importantly, I want to see the Church rediscover the central role that the Gospels can and should play in all our teaching and preaching.
(2) I still have your ground-breaking dissertation, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (click the title for an impressive slate of reviews) on my desk for fast reference. What’s the connection between that work and this present work? Obviously one is a dissertation, the other a textbook; but are there links would someone see and identify as the seedbed of the “Pennington” school of thought?
Very funny and rather scary idea that there would ever be a “Pennington school of thought”! But it is a good question about what connections there are between my earlier work on Matthew and Reading the Gospels Wisely. The biggest difference is that RGW is written as a rather far-reaching, supplement textbook on how to read the Gospels overall.
There is a similarity in approach in that I still primarily read the Gospels through a literary and theological lens; this is evident in both books. But while Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew makes a sustained argument for the existence of a particular literary theme in Matthew, RGW covers a range of hermeneutical, historical, and theological issues concerning all the Gospels. In many ways it is really an ecclesial hermeneutics book for the Gospels.
(3) Your promotional video has a bit of a provocative edge to it, pushing back against “small” gospel. How do you situate your book with respect to the wider conversation in evangelicalism on the definition of the gospel? How does your experience as a professor of the gospels shape your definition of the gospel?
Yes, I suppose there is a bit of an edge in that video, but I hope a nice, smooth edge, not a jagged one! Though the scope of RGW is much wider than the issue of how to define the “gospel,” I do address this issue in the first couple of chapters and I do care about this important current discussion.
My study throughout the years has convinced me that the Gospels – intertextually rehashing Isaiah in particular – help us see that the “euangelion” (good news) of the Bible is the message of God returning to restore his reign. It is, to use Matthew’s unique phrase, “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14). The shorthand version is that the gospel message of Scripture is the story of God’s reign coming from heaven to earth, from creation to new creation, centered in Jesus the Christ. There is no place in Holy Scripture where this is more clearly or fully developed than in the fourfold Gospel book.
Stay tuned for part two of the interview, coming tomorrow.1 Comment
February 15, 2012 by Matthew Mason
Jaroslav Pelikan’s comments on Augustine’s method in dealing with law and grace highlights the problem with some contemporary accounts: they emphasise one aspect of Scripture’s teaching while ignoring or downplaying other aspects. I believe in systematicity in theology, but I’m increasingly suspicious of a rush to system; and I think that, for commendable pastoral and homiletical reasons, that can be a besetting problem for pastors and preachers.
Augustine managed to hold together what Augustinians have often tended to separate. In his piety and preaching, if not always in his theology, the paradox of grace as sovereign, as necessary, and as mediated transcended the alternatives inherent in it. And so he could write: “By the law is the knowledge of sin, by faith the acquisition of grace against sin, by grace the healing of the soul from the fault of sin, by the health of the soul the freedom of the will, by free will the love of righteousness, by love of righteousness the accomplishment of the law. Thus as the law is not made void but established through faith, since faith obtains the grace by which the law is fulfilled; so free will is not made void but established through grace, since grace cures the will, by which righteousness is loved freely.”
These disparate elements could be held together because “all the stages which I have here connected together in their successive links have severally their proper voices in the sacred Scriptures,” and Augustine sought to be as comprehensive as the Scriptures themselves. He acknowledged the limitations of theology as an expression of this comprehensiveness.
(Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 306-307, quoting Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, 30.52. Paragraph break and emphasis mine.)
September 30, 2011 by Jason Hood
Let me float a thought. What if, for a whole year, I read nothing new? In other words, I would read nothing that I had not read previously. Just to clarify: I have not been reincarnated. So that shrinks the list a fair bit.
As I suggest this, what comes to mind for you? Strengths/weaknesses/dangers? Do you know of anyone who has tried this, and what their experience was like?
I would try to apply this to fiction and non-fiction. I probably have to exclude reading that is necessary for teaching and writing projects, although even there I think I could restrain myself a good bit.
I’ve only just begun to ponder what this would look like. But here are a few stream-of-consciousness thoughts on my motivations:
- Ironically, a desire to try something novel (not in the fiction sense!) probably plays a role
- the degree of enjoyment I get when I re-read texts, or finish good books left unfinished
- in part because of emphases on (say) classics and “what really matters” at SAET; in the end there aren’t that many “lasting” pieces. However I do appreciate the ability to swim in all kinds of literature; and I do think that there’s a certain kind of cultural, scholarly, and theological fluency that comes from the approach I often take, which tends toward the smash-and-grab.
- I’ve always been curious about the impact of social location on reading (for instance, Lewis’s Space Trilogy made more sense after my experience in British higher education)…if I read book ___ now, will I have the same response as when I first read it? Will I see new ideas, wrinkles, errors?
- On the same line of thought, I find myself recommending books I haven’t seen in a decade or more, and I want to know if I should still be recommending them!
- For fiction alone this should be highly enjoyable: Brothers K, Lord of the Rings, etc.
- For biblical studies it’s a help in several ways. There are many good books whose ideas won’t be fresh for me, but could be applied in fresh ways and weighed in light of what I’ve learned lately. Plus it would push me to retrench in the primary sources–never a bad idea. As Howard Marshall used to tell us when we first started doctoral work, “Make the primary sources your mistress.” It’s easy to lose that mistress if you are married to the latest and (allegedly) “greatest”. Finishing unfinished books could be helpful, and getting back into commentaries is a plus.
- Concerned friends sometimes question the number of books on my shelves, and rightly so…but rereading would at least help justify possession…
June 9, 2011 by Jason Hood
Or did SAET do Vanhoozer? I’m not sure, but Vanhoozer was present while we all did Ecclesial Theology. The Second Fellowship of the SAET met this week in Chicago. It was everything one would want: encouraging, challenging, course-correcting, vision-casting.
Kevin Vanhoozer was our special guest; Doug Sweeney, our regular Second Fellowship advisor, was also in attendance, and both brought the wisdom for us. Several of us gave papers that attempted to make Pumpkin Pie out of The Great Pumpkin, Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine. KV interacted with our responses and spent time reflecting with us on what needs to happen in the theological-pastoral enterprise in which we are all engaged. A few soundbites faithfully (I hope) paraphrased:
“Theology is the study of reality. A theologian is a minister of reality.” Part of the theologian’s task is to challenge and cast down idolatrous counter-realities.
The task of the theologian is that of “public intellectual,” not necessarily in the global, CNN sense, but in the local sense. In a segmented world, pastor-theologians are the ones who can help make sense of the world as a whole. Local attempts to provide an answer to truly challenging questions, i.e., “What is a human being?” and thus make sense of the world cannot in fact do so.
The attempt to answer such questions can be made within the solar systems of economics, social media, medicine and science, politics, journalistic media, etc., and we can learn from such attempts. But wherever the attempt is made reductionism mars the end result. Theology alone gets to say, from a cosmic perspective, “God and reality are more than economics,” and theologians alone are the “Big Picture Specialists.”
“Theology and Christianity is not about getting God into my life, but about me getting into the life and story of God, who is restoring all things and renewing his image.“6 Comments
February 8, 2011 by Matthew Mason
The question whether Jesus was impeccable (unable to sin) during his state of humiliation (earthly life) looks, at first blush, like an abstract piece of scholasticism that pastors can do without. But as I pondered it yesterday, I concluded that it makes a good test case for someone’s theological methodology. The way you tackle it, if not the precise conclusions you draw, also has deep pastoral significance. The most obvious practical, pastoral issue is, to what extent is Jesus able to sympathise with me as a faithful High Priest when I’m tempted (cf. Heb 2:17f; 4:15)? As the divine Word, didn’t he have something of an advantage over me in resisting temptation? This is not a theoretical question. It’s something two members of my congregation have asked me, as we’ve studied the Apostle’s Creed.
In what follows, I’ll move in stages from more abstract methodological considerations to more concrete practical implications. It’s a long post, and requires a bit of moderately heavy lifting. But I think the practical pay-off is worth the conceptual work.
(1) The work of systematic theology is, in part, about erecting, or at least recognizing, the boundaries of the playing field of orthodoxy – it’s there to stop us from straying into error, sometimes serious error. This question is not just an intellectual exercise, it’s also, as so often, profoundly pastoral.
(2) The nature of Christian doctrine is what we might call loosely systematic. Since God is one, all of reality is coherent, as is his word. Therefore, in order to accord with Scripture and reality, our theology must also be coherent. Nevertheless, given our finitude, and the noetic effects of sin, we must be wary of drawing our systems too tightly. The quest for ruthless logical consistency and connectedness, if pursued too hard, ever runs the risk of collapsing into heresy.
(3) The best doctrinal formulations will be those that give the fullest account of the entire teaching of Scripture in all its richness and diversity. They will also be pastorally attuned. However, although Scripture’s richness and diversity is certainly coherent since it is the very words of the One God, it does not always (ever?) have an obviously rigorous and transparent systematic character.
(4) Not least when dealing with the person of Christ, we need first to affirm that we’re dealing with a deep mystery, something way beyond our ability to grasp. We have little enough awareness of what it means to be a person with one nature! We’re in many ways mysterious to ourselves. This is both inevitable and good – to know ourselves completely would be the way of insanity. This being so, how much less can we grasp of what it would mean to be a person with an unfallen nature (e.g., Adam in the Garden – what did temptation feel like for him?). Still less can we really grasp what it means to speak of a divine Person. Given the Creator-creature distinction, there is always a far greater un-likeness than likeness between God and us. In speaking of Christ, we are not even simply speaking of a divine Person. We are speaking of a divine Person who, whilst remaining fully and unchangeably divine, has taken to himself an unfallen human nature. We cannot remain completely silent on the matter, because that would be to deny God’s self-revelation in Christ. Nevertheless, we must speak and think with great caution and humility! Therefore, to misappropriate a line from Wittgenstein, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
(5) To the issue: could Christ have sinned? In technical language, was he impeccable, or peccable? The first boundary to erect is the affirmation that the incarnate Word was fully divine. In the self-emptying of taking on flesh, the immutable Word laid aside none of the attributes of deity in his divine nature. And this includes his holiness. Therefore, he could not sin. It’s impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2). God is of purer eyes than to look on evil, he can’t even look on wrong (Habakkuk 1:13). It therefore appears, without further question, that Christ was impeccable. However, to make this the only boundary in play in considering this question would be to risk running headlong into a docetic Christology.
(6) We therefore also need to affirm that the Word incarnate had a human nature. Now, human persons can sin when tempted, even persons with unfallen natures, such as Christ had (cf. Adam in the Garden!) However, Christ was not a human person (I’ll stick with past tenses, since our discussion is limited to his state of humiliation.) He was a divine Person with a human nature. This changes things somewhat, since persons, not natures, sin. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking the question, without reaching a definite conclusion – since we know that humans, even unfallen humans, are peccable, could a divine Person with a human nature sin in that nature?
(7) The next step, of vital importance, is to affirm that Christ’s temptations were real. The temptations of Matthew 4:1-11 are not a charade. Christ is not play-acting as he interacts with the satan. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the satan found his opportune moment to return to Jesus, and Jesus was tempted to avoid the cross, the intensity of his temptations caused him to sweat blood (Luke 22:44). In fact he’s been tempted like us in every way, although he resisted and remained without sin (Heb 4:15).
(8) We can go further. Not only was Jesus tempted in every way like us, he was tempted more than we ever have been or will be. We can be sure, given the centrality of Jesus’ mission to God’s plan of salvation, that never were satan’s assaults greater than when facing the incarnate Son. More than this, as C.S. Lewis observed, it’s only someone who’s resisted temptation who knows how powerful temptation really is, because the more you resist, the stronger the temptation becomes. If you give in straight away, you’ve no real idea how strong temptation can become. So we can conclude that Jesus, who consistently resisted temptation for 33 years – and most intensely from the time of his baptism until he handed his spirit over to his Father – has endured far greater temptations than we will ever experience. In comparison with him, we have no idea what real temptation is. I’ve been seriously tempted, but I’ve never sweat blood!
(9) We can, I think, go one step further still. In Romans 6, Paul says that having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we have died to sin (v.2-4). We are therefore to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (v.11). This is grounded in the fact that when Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all (v. 10). The implication is that before his death, he was alive to sin. Which can’t mean that he actually sinned, but must at least mean that the temptations he faced were real, and powerful. Now, put these things together. Jesus was alive to sin, but is no longer. In Christ, we’ve died, and so we are no longer alive to sin (ie, no longer under the power of sin – we can resist it and walk in newness of life). Therefore, it seems reasonable to infer that it’s easier for Christians to resist sin than it was for Jesus during his state of humiliation.
(10) We must add to all of this that Luke in particular presents Jesus as the archetypal man full of the Spirit. He goes out to face the satan in the wilderness full of the Spirit (Luke 4:1-12), and so resisted temptation as a man in the power of the Spirit. And notice the way, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins with Jesus praying and full of the Spirit, whilst the book of Acts (Luke’s sequel to his Gospel) begins with the Church praying, and full of the Spirit (Acts 1:14; 2:1ff; 4:23-31). In other words, Luke sets Jesus up as the model for us, the model of what a prayerful, Spirit-filled person is and can do. Thus, to the extent that I fall into sin, I fall short of being a Spirit-filled man. Nevertheless, some caution is in order. I remain suspicious that over-pressing this point, and underplaying the reality of the Word’s direct action on his human nature, leads to a species of Nestorianism.
(11) And, of course, in all of this, the vital thing for our salvation is not so much the question whether or not Jesus could have sinned, but the fact that he didn’t sin. He was therefore able to offer himself as a lamb without blemish for us, and die as the sinless for the guilty.
(12) How all this fits together is, as I said, deeply mysterious. And that’s ok. We need a system, but one that’s loosely systematic, and that’s able to respect all of the boundaries the Bible lays out for us, and all of the affirmations it makes. We don’t have to tie together every loose end. Even if we decide that the Word couldn’t sin, and therefore it was impossible for Jesus to sin (which is, I think, the most plausible position to take), we can’t then decide that therefore Jesus wasn’t really tempted like us. If we reach that conclusion, we’ve overstepped what the Bible says, and we rob ourselves of genuine comfort. I think the answer is found in stressing what the Bible stresses, and in trying to keep all these things together somehow. So sometimes, I need to stress Jesus’ divinity and therefore his utter holiness, purity, power, and difference from me. He is my Lord, worthy of my undivided worship and devotion. And certainly I need to emphasize the biblical truth that, for all his temptations, he remained unblemished, without sin. But when I’m tempted, I need to remind myself that Jesus was tempted far more than I, and so he’s able to understand and help me. And that he resisted temptation in the power of the Spirit and by the word of God, so when tempted I can pray, “Lead me not into temptation and deliver me from the evil one”, knowing that my faithful High Priest is also praying this for me before my Father. Then, strengthened by his Spirit who now dwells in me (notice how Trinitarian this is!), I can trust my Father’s promises to me in Scripture, resist temptation, and present my members to him as instruments of righteousness.2 Comments
October 19, 2010 by Matthew Mason
The familiar modern pattern arranges theology by a four-fold division into biblical, historical, systematic-doctrinal and practical theology sub-disciplines. Ursinus himself mapped the theological task in a quite different way. There are, he says, ‘three parts of the study of Divinity’. First, there is ‘Catechetical institution’, defined as ‘a summary and briefe explication of Christian doctrine’. This is followed by ‘an handling of Common places’, which is differentiated from ‘institution’ not in terms of its subject matter, but in terms of depth. The study of commonplaces covers the same ground as ‘institution’ and differs only in that it offers ‘a larger explication of every point, and of hard questions together with their definitions, divisions, reason and arguments’. Finally, there is ‘the reading and diligent meditation of the Scripture, or holy Writ. And this is the highest degree of the study of Divinity, for which Catechisme and Common places are learned; to wit, that we may come furnished to the reading, understanding, and propounding of the holy Scripture.’
Three things might be noted about Ursinus’ map. First, the distinctions he draws are not between different sub-disciplines but between different modes of engagement with the same unitary subject. Second, Holy Scripture is not simply one concern of theology, but that towards which all studies in divinity move. Third, the end of studies in divinity is clear: ‘For Catechisme and Common places, as they are taken out of Scripture, and are directed by Scripture as by their rule; so againe they conduct and lead us as it were by the hand into the Scripture.’ (John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch [Cambridge University Press, 2003], 120-1; the paragraph division is mine).
In Webster’s words,
…doctrine serves Scripture, rather than the other way round. Scripture does not provide warrants for doctrinal proposals, simply because in Ursinus’ model of theology, there is no such thing as a doctrinal proposal separate from exegesis. The nearest he comes to anything like a formal doctrinal statement is—as we shall see—in the idea of commonplaces. But there is little room in Ursinus’ ‘Oration’ for dogmatics, and still less room for a conception of doctrine as an improvement upon Holy Scripture. There is simply the task of reading Holy Scripture, learning and teaching Scripture in such a way that godliness is promoted and the church more truthfully established as the kingdom of Jesus. (115)
Strikingly, although it wouldn’t always have been mapped in precisely this way, this kind of integrated, Scripturally focused approach to theology was the common practice of the Church for hundreds of years, not just following the Reformation, but also in the Patristic and Medieval periods, and, more recently in the theology of Karl Barth.
And there are encouraging signs of some sort of return to this attitude to theology. One thinks of the current renewed interest in theological exegesis, and of the work of Webster himself, and among others, of John Frame, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Peter Leithart among evangelicals. It’s also there to some extent in a more mainline theologian such as Robert Jenson and in the writings of Pope Benedict. It’s certainly helped me frame more clearly what I want to accomplish in the time I devote to theological study and writing.0 Comments
October 11, 2010 by Matthew Mason
‘positive Christian dogmatics is a wise, edifying and joyful science.’ (130)
On his decision to teach confessionally (following training in the critical tradition at Cambridge):
‘First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favour or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130f)
What I had stumbled onto was something which I could have learned from Barth or many other theologians at the very beginning: the need to do dogmatics, and to do so with good humour, diligently and with a determination not to be troubled about having to swim against the stream, but rather to work away steadily at the given task as responsibly as possible. For me this has meant busying myself with two principal spheres of work. One is that of becoming acquainted with the history of Christian theology, and coming to understand it as the history of the Church: as spiritual history, as a history of attempts to articulate the Gospel, and not just as a lumber room full of opinions to be submitted to the critical scrutiny of ‘valuers’ and then auctioned off or discarded. The other task is that of trying to understand and think through the categories of classical dogmatics in their totality and their interrelations – to acquire a proper grasp of the architecture of dogmatics and to see its shape as the science of the Church’s confession. (132f)
On the state of systematic theology in Britain:
I find myself at odds with those of my British colleagues who are more confident of the state of systematic theology: where they see an invigorated and invigorating discipline engaged in lively conversation in the academy, I tend to see a soft revisionism chastened by bits of Barth, or over-clever Anglo-Catholicism with precious little Christology, soteriology, or pneumatology. I do not yet see much by way of positive dogmatics… (133)
It is obvious that, although he works in a university context (previously at Oxford, now in Aberdeen), Webster is self-consciously an ecclesial theologian.
Theology is an office of the Church of Jesus Christ. Whatever form there may be to the particular set of institutional arrangements in which it does its work, theology is properly undertaken in the sphere of the Church – in the sphere, that is, of the human community which is brought into being by the communicative, saving presence and activity of God. Theology is one of the activities of reason caught up by the miracle of the work of the triune God, a miracle which God himself makes manifest in his Word. This miracle, moreover, by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and in the sheerly creative power of the Holy Spirit generates a new mode of common life: the Church. (133f)
Reason, no less than body and conscience, stands under the sign of baptism. Theological reason is the exercise of the regenerate mind in the matter of the gospel of Jesus Christ that is at the heart of the Church’s existence and calling. (134)
Theology, to put it at its sharpest, is not a matter of “free speech”…. The activity of theological reason, rather, is undertaken as an act of deference; only its its deference to the given truth of its calling is it free…. Theological reason is as much a sphere of reconciliation, sanctification, prayer, and Church as any other human undertaking…theological reason works under the Church’s tutelage, authority, and protection (134)
What does the theologian do? ‘the task of theology is to take part in the common work of all the saints, that is, edifying the church.’ (135) How? ‘by testifying to the Gospel’s promise and claim.’ (135).
The two fundamental tasks are exegesis and dogmatics. ‘Of these tasks, exegesis is of supreme and supremely critical importance, because the instrument through which the risen Christ announces his Gospel is Holy Scripture.’ Without exegesis, ‘theological reason cannot even begin to discharge its office.’
Rather than offering an improvement on Scripture by being better organized, more sophisticated, or more precise,
Dogmatics is about the business of setting forth ‘commonplaces’, a series of loosely organized proposals about the essential content of the witness of Holy Scripture, which serve to inform, guide and correct the Church’s reading. Far from imporoving upon the scriptural material, dogmatics gives place to it. (135)
All of this means that to be a theologian is no easy task:
the demands of the office [of systematic theologian], both intellectual and spiritual, are virtually unsupportable. For what must the theologian be? Holy, teachable, repentant, attentive to the confession of the Church, resistant to the temptation to treat it with irony of intellectual patronage, vigilant against the enticement to dissipate mind and spirit by attending to sources of fascination other than those held out by the Gospel. In short: the operation of theological reason is an exercise in mortification. But mortification is only possible and fruitful if it is generated by the vivifying power of the Spirit of Christ in which the Gospel is announced and its converting mode made actual. And it is for this reason that theology must not only begin with but also be accompanied at every moment by praying for the coming of the Spirit, in whose hands alone lie our minds and speeches. (136)
John Webster, ‘Discovering Dogmatics’ in Darren C. Marks, ed., Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002): 129-360 Comments
September 23, 2010 by Matthew Mason
‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children’ (Luke 10:21). I have been struck recently by how Jesus’ words are, among other things, his Theological Methodology 101. What counts for a theologian is not so much great erudition, mastery of the languages, exegetical insight, philosophical range, analytical sophistication, familiarity with the tradition. We should not despise rigor and learning. Nevertheless, what is of central importance is to come to God as a little child, laying aside status and pedigree, and adopting a disposition of humble dependence.
John Frame’s monumental Doctrine of God provides a striking illustration of this principle, and a model for those of us committed to rigorous ecclesial theology. The dust jacket contains glowing commendations: ‘Frame stands in the great Refomed tradition of Calvin and Charnock, Hodge and Bavinck, yet in his treatment of the doctrine of God he surpasses them all with an amazing breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding’ (Wayne Grudem); ‘It is an intellectual treat, rigorous in analysis, exhaustive in exposition, and cogent in argument’ (Donald Macleod); ‘Masterfully expounds and defends the biblical doctrine of God’ (Vern Poythress.). No surprises there, for those familiar with Frame’s other works.
What surprised me was the way Frame chose to begin. Not a quotation from Augustine or Aquinas. Not a Latin phrase in sight. But rather, a children’s song:
Why can’t I see God; Is he watching me?
Is he somewhere out in space, or is he here with me?
I am just a child; teach me from his word;
Then I’ll go and tell to all the great things I have heard.
Teach me while my heart is tender;
Tell me all that I should know,
And even through the years I will remember,
No matter where I go.
The naivete of the song is revealing. Whether or not he surpasses Calvin and Bavinck, Frame’s Doctrine of God is masterful. But the reason that he writes so profoundly about God is because he has a deep knowledge of God. And the reason he knows God so well is because, for all his intellectual gifts, he has humbled himself and become like a child.0 Comments